Remember when I told you that panic attacks originate in the body and can therefore only be controlled through our relationship with the body? It is called Soft Belly – Soft Throat – Soft Tongue. This is how you do it:
You can do this process any time, anywhere. While it is ideal to do it standing, you can do it sitting if you prefer/need to, or even lying down. However you do it, keep your eyes open throughout. This is not a meditation; it is a physiological process of calming your autonomic nervous system.
- Bring your focus to your belly – the region immediately above your belt. Tell your belly to relax, or be soft. It is your belly – a part of your body – so you can instruct it to let go of tension. With a soft belly, breathe into your belly.
Many of us, especially when anxious, breathe into our chest. This is a shallow breath and actually increases our anxiety levels. To breathe into our belly, we imagine drawing the breath right down to our belt line. Our belly extends, and lastly, our chest extends.
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Focus on your breath. Whenever your thoughts drift off, come back to simply telling yourself that all you need to do is breathe. Focus on getting into a natural rhythm dictated by your body. You will find your breathing slows over time and becomes effortless. Allow the body to naturally exhale rather than pushing the out-breath out.
- Bring your attention up through your body as you continue to breathe into your belly, and stop with your throat. Tell your throat to relax. This is not the same as asking your shoulders to relax. When you tell your throat to relax, you may notice a softening in the neck muscles and a slight drop of the shoulders. Sometimes you may feel a desire to yawn. Allow this to happen. It is one of the ways the autonomic nervous system drops into a calmer state (rest and digest vs flight/flight).
- Now bring your attention to your tongue. Often, we create tension in our body and our emotions simply through holding tension in our tongue. We push our tongue against the roof of our mouth or against our front teeth. Tell your tongue to relax and let it simply lie in your mouth. You may notice a further softening of your jaw muscle and a slight opening of the mouth.
- Breathe like this for a while with your eyes open and allow your senses to pick up sounds, sights and smells in the here-and-now. For example, you may notice a car pass; a rustle of a tree; a dog barking, and so on. Just notice without becoming attached to any of these stimulants. Continue to tell your body that you are safe through creating a soft belly – soft throat – soft tongue.
In this state of being, it is simply not possible to experience a panic attack.
What else can help?
Any embodied practice – a practice where you are mindfully in your body – will help with controlling anxiety and panic attacks. Examples include yoga, dancing and martial arts but it can be as simple as walking barefoot on sand, grass or even a floor.
And then, of course, there is counselling or psychotherapy.
The relationship with yourself
Counselling and psychotherapy are about developing a relationship with yourself. That includes with your body. Through talking therapy, the triggers and causes of anxiety and panic attacks can be gently uncovered, understood, relationally processed and expressed in words and emotions rather than as the body being overwhelmed.
Mark Vahrmeyer is a UKCP-registered psychotherapist working in private practice in Hove and Lewes, East Sussex. He is trained in relational psychotherapy and uses an integrative approach of psychodynamic, attachment and body psychotherapy to facilitate change with clients.